Thursday, 3 April 2014

He's got my back

We are well into the final phase of training at Oxford now, learning to fly the Boeing 737 using full-motion simulators and operating as a two-pilot crew. It is demanding but very satisfying and I am really enjoying it.

No longer are we a single pilot operation, with all the stress and pitfalls that entails. Instead we are a team, we can split the workload, help each other out, catch errors and so on. Each session is two hours and we take turns as either pilot flying or pilot monitoring. Both jobs keep you busy and involved, and in fact the pilot monitoring ends up flying a substantial chunk of each sector.

The early lessons were fully manual exercises to get used to handling the aircraft. At around 50 tonnes and with powerful jet engines it's very different to the light twins we are used to.

"What happens if I press this?"
The large mass and high speed means you must really think ahead of the aircraft. Low drag and turbine engines mean the power settings and speed control need to be very accurate and adjustments must be made quickly. High power means giddy climb rates on take-off — you better be ready. A yaw damper system means that the rudder takes care of itself in normal circumstances, so we have to flight our instincts to coordinate turns and keep our feet still.

But ultimately an aeroplane is an aeroplane and they all work pretty much the same way. It takes surprisingly little time to get used to the handling and fly it manually reasonably well.

This course is not about accurate manual flying however, it is about training for the job — part of a crew flying a passenger jet. Great care has been taken to make it as realistic as possible. We are instructed by experienced airline pilots and work to company procedures using company check lists and reference material, routes and paperwork. Communications with ATC, ground crew, cabin crew and passengers are all part of the simulation.

We are even expected to make passenger announcements and get a kick out of saying things like "cabin crew doors to manual and cross check." Asking the purser for a cup of tea might be taking it bit far though.

A real 737 from the outside. Our simulators look more like a cross
between an portacabin and a giant spider.
Importantly, we are getting a grounding in automatic flight, learning how the auto-throttle and autopilot can help and equally when they can be a liability.

To some extent it is true that the plane can "fly itself", but only if it is set up correctly in the first place, if all systems are working correctly and if plans do not change. Getting the automatics to do the basic flying and navigating frees up the pilots for other important tasks, but never reduces the requirement to monitor exactly what the aircraft is doing now and next.

So far, our scenarios have been realistic but smooth sectors, for example today we flew from Heathrow to Manchester and back (a short and busy route) but the weather was fine and nothing went wrong with the aircraft of the ground based equipment. Next we will be learning how to deal with situations such as poor weather, delays, diversions and of course emergencies.

Ultimately we will be assessed while flying a complete sector with a full complement of imaginary passengers and cabin crew, without any instructor input. During the flight two or three 'situations' or full emergencies will arise and must be dealt with.

And we will be doing this... next Friday!

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